Urban radio’s healing sounds fade

After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., famed radio disc jockey Ralph “Petey” Greene, whose life was portrayed in the 2007 film “Talk to Me” starring Don Cheadle, helped to quell riots and looting in Washington, D.C.’s black community by offering encouraging messages on the radio.

But over the past 20 years, urban radio has been on the decline, leaving urban communities craving the call-and-response healing of music and opinion that comes from the African diaspora about current events on the air.

When Pittsburgh’s WAMO radio station was sold to St. Joseph Missions by Sheridan Broadcasting in 2009, the community’s outcry about R&B/hip-hop programming being replaced by Catholic programming hit local newspapers and blogs like a storm surge.

“WAMO had an AM station that played old soul; your Marvin Gaye, Donnie Hathaway,” said Pittsburgh native Kyle Abraham, whose dance company Abraham.In.Motion will perform “The Radio Show” at Spoleto Festival USA. “An FM station that played contemporary music; your Beyonce, Tweet. Without that station there’s no exposure for artists like Erykah Badu, Jill Scott. Where then will we go to listen to new music that doesn’t sound the same?”

Abraham’s original dance production, “The Radio Show,” is divided into AM and FM sections, and was inspired not only by his father, who has Alzheimer’s and aphasia, but also by Pittsburgh’s loss of WAMO radio. WAMO’s closing is just one example of the increasing number of urban radio stations closing their doors or being bought out by larger corporate interests. In the Charleston area, Citadel Broadcasting recently sold its stations to Cumulus Broadcasting for $2.4 billion.

Exposing Charlestonians to different music has been the cornerstone of Osei Chandler’s three-decade radio career. Known as “Mr. Reggae,” Chandler has been one of the only DJs spinning reggae, calypso and roots music for nearly a dozen radio stations in Charleston, Columbia and Georgetown.

“I know the music is uplifting,” Chandler said. “My music is about uplifting and positive vibrations. It’s about love, it’s about justice and equal rights and some of it is just plain fun.”

Uplifting the black community was a large part of early urban radio programming, which saw its sharpest increases in the mid-1970s as the Civil Rights Movement gave way to urban angst and affirmative action. Many stations sought out black on-air personalities, and black media ownership increased because tax breaks were offered to minority owners and advertisers who placed ads on black stations, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Many people cite the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act as urban radio’s critical turning point, because the act allowed for the corporatization of radio and the spread of syndication. This changed advertising strategies; ads once sold to individual stations were suddenly packaged for big companies that would air them on all of their stations, according to New York’s WBAI Public Radio. This accelerated the demise of many small, black-owned stations because, despite high ratings, they could not sustain profits.

Data from the National Association of Black Broadcasters shows that black people make up 14 percent of the U.S. population, but have only 2 percent of broadcast licenses. The U.S. has more than 6,000 commercial radio stations, but fewer than 100 black commercial radio station owners, according to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

“Syndication has taken the localization of radio and put it on a national scale,” said Brian Seabrook, whose career started in 1995 at WTVA Gospel station in St. Stephen reading community news. “In other words, instead of having a personality that you can touch, you have celebrities on the radio that you can’t touch or call. The local community is not the topic of the local station. That’s the difference between syndication and local programming.”

Seabrook is Charleston’s Original B.A.A.D. (Born Again And Delivered) Boy of Gospel, and his live program, “The Afternoon Joy Ride,” airs on WJNI (101.7). He believes having a local angle provides a release for the community.

“When we had a young girl, who was 13 years old, and was on her way to a high school football game, she was walking with her friends, and as she was walking a gunfight broke out a block away from her, and a stray bullet struck her in the back and killed her,” Seabrook said. “It never made the national news, so local news picked it up. Our station and our sister station got together and raised money to help the mother pay the expenses for the funeral (more than $4,000). National personalities can’t do that.”

Frankie “Da Big Bopper” Greene tells of an instance when a man called during his show on Magic 107.3 to say he was fed up with life and ready to kill himself. Greene took a commercial break, listened to the man’s story and dedicated the Swanee Quintet’s “Ups and Downs” to him. The man later called Greene and told him that that moment saved his life. Now, 10 minutes before each hour of his Saturday radio slot, 10 a.m.-3 p.m., he dedicates a song to someone.

“Back in the day, radio was the thing,” Greene said, recalling the echoes of radios in the housing projects where he grew up. “If something happened or was about to happen, everyone would turn off the TV and go to the radio.”

In choreographing “The Radio Show,” Abraham thought of the connection between the loss of black radio and a breach in communication.

“The station had call-in segments where issues are coming up about battered women or people dealing with life-threatening illnesses,” Abraham said of WAMO. “For a community that’s not necessarily going to counseling, black radio is their counseling. Where do they go now, and what happens?”

Kelundra Smith is a Newhouse School graduate student.